NFL Preview - Atlanta (2-4) at Arizona (3-4)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Matt Ryan had perhaps his worst game as a professional when he faced Arizona last season.
The Atlanta quarterback, though, is coming off one of his better games of this year and will try to lead the Falcons to a second straight victory on Sunday in a road matchup with John Abraham and the Cardinals.
Ryan is coming off a 273-yard, three-touchdown performance in last Sunday's 31-23 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one that produced a career-high 148.4 passer rating.
It was a much-needed victory for Atlanta, which was coming off its bye week having lost three in a row. It remained third in the NFC South, a game back of second-place Carolina.
"I think our preparation and the sense of urgency has been pretty good all year," Ryan said after the victory. "I think, specifically coming off of the bye, I think people were refreshed mentally, physically, emotionally and I think we had a great week of practice."
Ryan had a solid game despite missing his top two wide receivers. Julio Jones was placed on injured reserve during the off week because of a foot injury and Roddy White's nagging hamstring and ankle injuries finally forced him out of the lineup for the first time in his career.
White had played in 133 straight games and joined No. 1 running back Steven Jackson (thigh) on the sidelines. However, running back Jacquizz Rodgers caught eight passes and two touchdowns out of the backfield and Harry Douglas hauled in seven catches for a career-high 149 yards with a score.
"Harry had a career day," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith. "Harry's role changed two weeks ago because of our situation at wide receiver. He stepped up to the plate and did an extremely good job today."
The Falcons also picked up a defensive score after safety William Moore's strip-sack was picked up by safety Thomas DeCoud, who went 30 yards for a score. That helped set the tone as Atlanta improved to 5-1 under Smith following the bye week.
Atlanta will play its next two on the road looking to reverse a trend in this series that has seen the home team win six straight. The Falcons kept that streak going last season with a 23-19 victory over Arizona despite Ryan's career-high five interceptions.
Five different Cardinals got their hands on Ryan picks, including linebacker Daryl Washington, who added a game-high 11 tackles.
Ryan posted the second-lowest passer rating of his career at 40.5, but Arizona managed just 178 yards of total offense, 137 of that coming on the ground.
Abraham had two sacks and a forced fumble for the Falcons, who he will play against for the first time since joining the Cardinals this offseason. He was released by Atlanta on March 1.
Arizona is looking to avoid a third straight setback ahead of its bye week and was defeated 34-22 by the Seattle Seahawks last Thursday night. Carson Palmer struggled with a pair of interceptions that were turned into Seahawks points and was also sacked seven times.
The Cardinals were held to 234 yards of offense, including just 30 on the ground. Running back Rashard Mendenhall ran for a score, but was limited to 22 yards on 13 carries.
Abraham logged his first two sacks of the season and both forced fumbles as well, but the Cards defense allowed a pair of long touchdown drives early in the game, contributing to what head coach Bruce Arians called a sluggish start.
"Everybody needs to step up their game, mainly me being the quarterback. That's your job. But we've got to keep growing. There's not enough things (that) got better, obviously," said Palmer.
This marks Arizona's second straight home game and it will also host Houston on Nov. 10 after its off week.
The Cardinals have won both of their previous meetings with the Falcons at University of Phoenix Stadium, but Atlanta has won two straight and six of the past eight meetings overall, including playoffs.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Abraham had a very successful stint with the Falcons after they acquired him from the New York Jets before the 2006 campaign. He had a club-record 68 1/2 sacks over his seven seasons in Atlanta, including a career-high and franchise single-season best 16 1/2 in 2008.
The 35-year-old added another club record last season with six forced fumbles and has logged 124 sacks and 46 forced fumbles over his career.
Atlanta, though, decided to part ways with the veteran and the Cardinals brought him on board to add depth to their 3-4 scheme. Abraham has been forced into a bigger role than expected however because of injuries to Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander.
"It is part of football, but your roster changes every year," said Smith. "There is a new dynamic to your team and it changes from year to year. John was a very integral part of the success we had here. We know he's an outstanding edge rusher.
"I know he is looking forward to competing against us, and I know we are looking forward to competing against him."
Abraham will try to make things difficult for his former teammate Ryan, who improved to 34-2 last weekend when he starts and posts a passer rating of 100 or better.
Without White and Jones, Ryan played it safe with Rodgers out of the backfield and also made plays with Douglas, who has made 23 catches this season and has appeared in all but one game since getting drafted by Atlanta in the third round in 2008.
The Falcons do come in ranked 30th in rushing offense at 68.3 yards per game and ran for just 18 yards as a team last week. They have rushed for over 100 yards in a game just once this season and have not had Jackson since he suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter of a Week 2 matchup with St. Louis.
Jackson did return to practice in a limited role on Wednesday, though White and running back Jason Snelling (ankle) did not.
The Cardinals rank seventh in the NFL in run defense, giving up just 97.0 YPG, but yielded 135 on the ground to Seattle.
Arizona's 29th-ranked offense struggled against the talented Seahawks as the offensive line was dominated and the run game again failed to get going. Left tackle Bradley Sowell in particular had trouble against the pass rush as Palmer was pressured all game.
"I got to give him credit for standing," Arians said of Palmer. "When you get hit that many times and you're still standing in there, looking back neither interception was his fault whatsoever. Overall he protected the football like he needed to. We've got to make better plays."
Arians doesn't have many options to turn to on the offensive line, which lost 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper for the year when the guard suffered a fractured leg in the preseason.
That line goes against a Falcons front that went back to deploying a rotation that excelled during Abraham's tenure there. Rookies Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga earned snaps against the Bucs thanks to solid play.
Smith decided to go with the rotation for last weekend's game, something he didn't think the young guys were ready for at the onset of the schedule.
"I think it does a lot of things. It keeps our guys fresher," Smith said of the rotation. "We're all about competition. I think it's very important there is a very competitive situation each and every week. I think we have that right now; I think we're creating that right now in the defensive front.
"It will definitely help us down the long road in terms of the older players, the wear and tear on their body, as we get into the second half of this season."
Atlanta's secondary did struggle against Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson, who was targeted 22 times and made 10 catches for 138 yards and two scores. The unit faces another elite receiver this weekend in Larry Fitzgerald.
"I think it will be very good for our young players. Vincent is little bit bigger and taller than Larry, but he is a big physical wide receiver," said Smith. "I anticipate they will move Larry around just like they did Vincent to try and get the match ups they think are favorable. All of our guys are going to have to be prepared to line up against him."
Fitzgerald was limited to just two catches against Seattle and has made 32 receptions for 422 yards and four touchdowns on the season. Teammate Michael Floyd has helped with 31 receptions for 403 yards.
Fitzgerald will be 30 years and 57 days old this Sunday and is four catches shy of becoming the youngest player to ever reach 800. Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten made his 800th catch at 30 years, 238 days old.
Expected Super Bowl contenders, the Falcons have put themselves in a hole, but there is light up ahead as three of their next four games are against the Cardinals, Carolina Panthers and Buccaneers.
Injuries may make this a closer game than expected and Arizona's defense will need to make a big stop at some point if it wants a victory. Ryan, though, should be able to manage the game enough to get a win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 27, Cardinals 24
10/24 16:19:17 ET